Symbiosis Gathering celebrates the multi-day festival’s 10th anniversary September 17-20 at the Woodward Reservoir in Oakdale with a massive lineup and floating water art exhibits.
The four-day, mid-sized festival returns to the same location near Modesto as in 2013. The huge and diverse lineup that includes noteworthy artists such as electro-pop duo Sylvan Esso, Oakland-based group tUnE-yArDs, experimental electronic act Four Tet, glitch-hop producer GRiZ, and hip-hop DJ Kaytranada.
To preview the event, we spoke with Symbiosis Gathering’s co-producer Kevin KoChen about the foundation of the event, characteristics of the Woodland Reservoir and other music festival influences.
Can you describe the vibe of the first Symbiosis?
It was great. What was most unique about it was that there were different groups of people that all listen to different types of music that would never normally hang out with one another. The lineup was diverse enough to draw people from each of these different scenes. It created a community of like-minded people who just happened to like different kinds of music. It was one of the most unifying experiences I’ve had in the Bay Area because there were so many like-minded people that would have never got the chance to connect. So I was immediately taken with it.
Who were some noteworthy acts on the first lineup?
Edit and Ooah, it was before they were the Glitch Mob, played. One of the headliners was Kan’nal, who is a very great live act from Colorado. I don’t know what you call it. It’s like a hippy heavy metal. A really unique sound. Very creative and talented people. Bluetech and Phutureprimitive were there too. It was a very good lineup.
What’s your formal title?
I’m a partner and co-producer. I do some of the booking and I do a lot of the marketing. My job is to put into words the experience we’re creating. We have a really strong team. We work really well together. It’s not like a traditional corporate setting. It’s much more of a familial organization.
How many employees are in the entire organization?
That’s impossible. We have six partners. We have an inter-core of let’s say 11 but really, we’re a close community of people collaborating on a project. It’s consistent with what happens in start ups around the Bay Area because you’re trying to produce an idea or a product or an experience. Traditional hierarchical roles of business and chain of command can stifle inspiration. It’s not always appropriate for creative projects. The organization is very much a meritocracy and very collaborative.
What can you share about the Woodward Reservoir?
Woodland Reservoir, to my knowledge, is the only concert venue in the U.S. that has lake swimming and art boats. It’s a huge blessing. It’s 100 miles from the Bay Area, so it’s very accessible. The reservoir is run by San Joaquin irrigation district, who said they’re going to keep it for the event. It gives opportunities we’ve never had before. Because it’s close to the Bay Area, it provides a lot of accessibility to creative individuals. It’s unique from our past venues where we were kind of setting up a production where there was absolutely no infrastructure or towns close by. There’s still no infrastructure on site but we’re within an hour and half from the Bay. When people are flying, it’s a quick trip to the venue. It’s wide open. It’s really beautiful to have the water. You can see sunrise and sunset. It’s an amazing venue.
Is the mission for Symbiosis sustainability or does it have another theme?
I mean first off, no festival is sustainable. It’s a ridiculous thing. We try to be realistic in how we create the events to try and reduce waste as much as possible. We’ve had permaculture courses in 2006 and 2007. We’ve have had sustainability classes since then as well. This year we have a five day permaculture immersive days before the Gathering (September 12-17). I think we’ve always been on the leading edge to bring talks to sustainability, permaculture, and the ecological thinking into the festival scene. It’s a really important aspect for us.
We have artists who thrive on getting discarded materials and making beautiful sculptures with them. One of our favorites is Shrine (Brett Allen Spears). I think his Instagram is ShrineOn. He takes discarded bottle caps, aluminum cans and wood and he creates these massive, beautiful structures that look like temples. When we talk about sustainability, it’s an idea to aspire toward to try and create opportunities for education but also for entertainment by taking waste and creating beauty out of it.
Where do you find a lot of the acts to include on the lineup?
CocoRosie we had in 2009. As a reunion, we invited them back. They had a fantastic time, they are now friends with people in our community. When we asked, they were really excited. They are doing a special performance for us one of the nights. We’re having them do their set, but they’re also going to have a second performance we’ll announce sometime in August.
Festivals that influence us are definitely Universo Parallelo in Brazil, Boom Festival in Portugal, and Rainbow Serpent in Australia. There is the “transformational” festival scene that’s talked about in the United States. We like to think of ourselves as an international festival that just happens to be in California. Universo, Boom, and Rainbow have a great progressive and trance dance floor and there’s nobody out in the United States that books it. Record labels like Iboga Records, Zenon, Nano and Tip World. That’s definitely unique to Symbiosis.
In 2013, we were the first event to bring over Chet Faker and IAMAMIWHOAMI to the United States. We were the first to bring over Ott in 2006. We’re definitely not bound by the traditional festival headliners. We love great music and we get great lineups because acts have heard about and want to play our events. We have a lot of unique aspects. We’re not sponsored. We don’t have alcohol sales. We spend a lot of effort trying to make the entire area an art space. People are interested to come play and we get a lot of wonderful acts.
Are you influenced at all by Burning Man?
We’re definitely influenced by Burning Man. Its one of a kind. It’s kind of reached a capacity for people who can go and there’s a lot of people that can’t get tickets. I don’t want to say we’re an alternative to Burning Man because its is a completely different thing. It’s its own animal. We have such respect for what it is. It’s unique, it’s not like anything else. It’s definitely not a music festival, but a unique artistic experience.
It’s an amazing participatory adventure where everybody is part of the festival. A music festival is where people come to watch the show. We’re in between. We encourage people to help create the experience and at the same time we’re curating the programming, so we see ourselves as fully participatory environment with a curated lineup. We’re a great size right now. We’re a large experience that you can still find your friends.